Governor’s Septic System Ban Concerns Shore Legislators

BERLIN — Local legislators and elected officials all over the Eastern Shore this week came out in strong opposition to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s call for a ban on septic systems in new development, citing the potential loss of local control on planning and growth issues and, perhaps more importantly, a serious decline in property values in rural areas.

In his State of the State address earlier this month, O’Malley called for a ban on the use of septic systems in new developments, citing the on-site sewage treatment system’s negative impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways in Maryland including the coastal bays. This week, O’Malley’s concept became reality when bills were introduced in both the House and Senate that would, if passed, prohibit the approval of new developments that will be served by septic systems.

“Among the big four causes of pollution in the bay, there is one area of reducing pollution where so far we have totally failed, and in fact, it’s actually gotten much worse,” said O’Malley during his address. “And that is pollution from the proliferation of septic systems throughout our state, systems which, by their very design, are intended to leak sewage ultimately into our bay and into our water tables.”

State law already prevents the installation of new septic systems in the state’s designated Critical Areas, but the legislation now on the table call for an outright ban on the on-site sewage treatment systems. In rural areas, such as Worcester and Wicomico counties, local officials have attempted, with great success in many cases, to connect rural areas to public sewer systems in an effort to wean new development off septic systems.

Local governments have long since adopted their own regulations on the use of new septic systems and required the replacement of failing systems with new nitrogen removing technology where possible. However, the governor’s proposal to ban all septic systems for new development, and the associated bills filed this week, attempts to wrest development controls away from local government and place in the hands of a broad brush state policy, according to several elected officials on the shore and other rural areas.

Senator Jim Mathias said this week he was taken aback by the governor’s proposed septic system ban. Mathias said the proposal, if approved, could essentially evoke a moratorium on new development in rural counties like Worcester and Wicomico, which could, in turn, degrade property values.

“I was absolutely surprised the governor brought that forward,” he said. “I had no knowledge of that. This is a matter of deep, deep concern to us in the rural areas. Local zoning rights need to be protected and property rights need to be preserved.”

Mathias said he has already been in contact with local government officials across the district in Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset Counties in order to gage the potential impact of the proposed septic system ban.

“Naturally, everybody I’ve talked to is very concerned,” he said. “We need to maintain our local management, our zoning and planning practices that are in place after careful consideration and study of these issues.”

Delegate Mike McDermott agreed the proposed septic system ban could have the impact of halting growth in rural counties and adversely affecting property values. McDermott said O’Malley all but acknowledged the latter during his remarks on the issue.

“In his remarks, the governor did not shy away from the notion that this has all the potential of reducing the value of land in many areas around the state, and in particular, the Eastern Shore,” he said. “The irony of this must not be lost in the shuffle.

McDermott said he strongly opposed a statewide ban on septic systems for new development, pointing out many local jurisdictions, including Worcester, already have stringent regulations in place on their proliferation. He said good land-use and planning decisions should be left in the hands of those on the grassroots level.

“Good planning is best performed at the local level,” he said. “Infusing more centralized power into the Maryland Department of Planning is not the answer when it comes to encouraging smart growth initiatives. In fact, several counties on the shore are already utilizing best growth practices when it comes to this issue.”

Local governments are reacting to the governor’s proposed septic system ban in a similar way this week. For example, in Salisbury this week, the Wicomico County Council voted to send a letter to the governor and the district’s legislators in opposition to the septic system ban.

“I think this raises a number of concerns for Wicomico County,” said Councilman Matt Holloway, who served on the state’s Critical Areas Commission. “I can understand no septic in the critical areas, but the problem is not with septic systems, the problem is with failing septic systems. I think a broad brush ban on all septic systems is irresponsible.”